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Property Theft in Oregon

bagsFor people experiencing homelessness, holding onto belongings is difficult. The danger of theft is one reason why shelters are sometimes avoided. And if some desperate person doesn’t take things away, the authorities will. What is called a “cleanup” of an area naturally includes the theft and destruction of property that belongs to homeless people.

It may be property that no one else would want or care about, but if an old bedroll is the only thing a person owns, the loss is grave and significant. For the Portland Tribune, Kevin Harden reports on the “cleanup” of a homeless camp in Oregon, as seen through the eyes of a homeless man named Joel Tucker. Harden says,

In March 2010, while he was away from his campsite near Interstate 205 and Southeast 92nd Avenue, state employees swept through the area, rousting campers and gathering up Tucker’s tent, sleeping bag, clothing, medication and tarp. Tucker returned to discover that his few possessions were missing. It took him 21 days to retrieve them from a state storage facility…

A lot of homeless camps exist on property belonging to the Oregon’s Department of Transportation (and one school of thought says, if it belongs to the state, it belongs to the people — and why should the people not sleep on their own land?). So it’s mainly ODOT employees and law enforcement personnel who carry out these sweeps. One of the problems is that they are none too careful about separating belongings from junk or trash.

Harden says,

In mid-April, Tucker joined five other homeless people who are suing Oregon’s Department of Transportation, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and up to 50 unidentified county and state employees in federal court for what they say were violations of their Fourth Amendment constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure and the failure of the agencies to follow state rules on storing personal items found in homeless camps.

The six plaintiffs, who camped in the same area, were relieved of such crucial items as ID cards and birth certificates, bus passes, bikes, sleeping bags, and a personal DVD player. Yes, that’s crucial too. When a person has nothing else, morale can stand or fall on a device that plays music and movies.

Plaintiff Jeff Nelson lost belongings in three different sweeps. Ironically, a few years back, while residing in the Multnomah County jail, he used to be on a crew of prisoners who were paid a dollar a day to “clean up” homeless encampments. There is something distasteful about the state (or the prison’s corporate owner) using inmates to do things against the interests of people who are, in some cases, even worse off, even though they are technically free.

It certainly went against the grain for Nelson. He told the journalist,

I felt that what happened at camps sweeps was stealing from people who had nothing to steal.

The Oregon Law Center represented the plaintiffs, who also wanted an injunction to prevent employees of the county from taking personal property without notice. Apparently, sometimes that “notice” thing just slips right by them. The state is supposed to keep property for at least a month, during which time it ought to be “reasonably available” to the owner who wants to claim it. Which doesn’t always happen, either. In April, Law Center attorney Monica Goracke did not foresee an out-of-court settlement.

But when Harden followed up this story less than a month ago, a settlement had been reached, and ODOT is to pay $14,000 for attorneys’ fees and $10,000 to be divided among the six homeless plaintiffs. The agency also agreed to make some better rules for campsite “sweeps” and tell its employees to follow them.

It seems like business entrepreneurs would be looking for ways to provide cheap storage for the homeless. The space could be anything from a small locker for a winter coat and boots, to whatever size a person could afford. Salvage yards must be full of old metal lockers removed from schools. Mini-storage cubicles must be one of the easiest types of buildings to build. It would be helpful if anyone reading this could point to an example of someone who is doing this.

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Source: “Homeless campers sue to block state from destroying belongings,” The Portland Tribune, 04/27/11
Source: “ODOT settles federal lawsuit by homeless campers,” The Portland Tribune, 07/26/11
Image by Garry Knight, used under its Creative Commons license.